The year 2019 undoubtedly began under the most favourable of circumstances for NASA scientists. In the early hours of New Year's Day, the space probe New Horizons, launched on 19 January, 2006 by the US Space Agency, had finally flown above the most distant celestial object ever approached by humanity: Ultima Thule.
Its official name is (486958) 2014 MU69 and this object from the Kuiper belt was discovered on June 26, 2014 thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope. With a particular two-lobed shape similar to that of a bowling pin, Ultima Thule is about 15 kilometres wide and about 35 in length. But in addition to its astonishing morphology, it is above all its distance from us that make it such an interesting one among the multitude of objects studied by astronomers.
‘New Horizons accomplished its mission today as planned, leading the most distant exploration of the history of any world - [located] [about 6.4 billion kilometres] from the sun’, said the leader of the project Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA. And the scientist does not hide his enthusiasm about the potential of the data recorded by the distant traveler New Horizons:
‘The data we have is fantastic, and we're already learning a lot about Ultima [Thule], so the [data quality] is just going to get better,’ says Alan Stern.
As close as can be to Ultima Thule
The probe was only able to approach the enigmatic celestial body from about 3,500 kilometres. According to some interpretations, Ultima Thule could actually be made up of two distinct elements, one orbiting around the other. This theory could indeed be a plausible explanation for its two-lobed shape that is so particular.
We must now be patient before we can know more. New Horizons will continue to transmit its data for 20 more months, since its communication rate is limited to 1 kilobit per second... So all that remains is to hope that 2019 continues to bring good news for the NASA teams and for their distant explorer New Horizons.
Check out the video above for a glimpse of these exciting new images!